Disclaimer: Avatar: the Last Airbender is not mine. I'm not Mike, Bryan, or Nick. In fact, I'm a girl. Go figure.
A/N: Okay, as already stated, this is the sequel to "Here at the End of All Things". If you don't read that story, you might still like this story, but you will probably be more than slightly confused. So, I suggest you go read that story first. I'm posting this as its own entity (as opposed to a second chapter to HatEoAT) because a) HatEoAT is best as a one-shot and b) I asked libowiekitty and this was her take on the matter (buckets of thanks, by the way!!!). Gotta love advice! If you go read that, this should be all well and good.
A/N the second: As stated in and demonstrated in HatEoAT, I am fond of redemption!Zuko. So, he will be making a reappearance. And no, this is NOT a Zutara fic, so you needn't run screaming if you're horribly repulsed by that mere possibility. There's some good friendship!Zutara, and one-sided angsty goodness on Zuko's part, but while it's definitely important to this fic, it's not really the point of this fic. Plus, if that slight bit makes you want to run screaming because you're horribly repulsed, then I'm not entirely sure I want you to read this in the first place. Again, this is a KATAANG story, albeit a tragic one.
A/N the third: Oh, and this is officially the prequel to "Sixteen Years" (even though Katara's age doesn't quite add up...so sue me, I wrote them out of order!). This of course makes these three one-shots a series. Hooray! And I am so incredibly happy to be writing an Avatar story again! You really have no idea. Now read, enjoy, and review!
The sea was loud in her ears, crashing and heaving against the black sands of the Fire Nation beach. Her boots sank a little into the sand as she slowly walked to the tideline, staring unseeingly out across the glistening blue depths. The waves sounded so lonely, she thought. As if they were striving with everything they had to reunite with the land, but each time they made any progress, they failed and drifted back to the ocean. Her knees failing her, she sat just above the tideline, and her hands fisted in the black sands. Her fingers dug in as if she were terrified of letting go.
Terrified of letting go. She almost gave a bitter, rueful laugh.
Her eyebrows contracted and she bit her lower lip, struggling to contain the sobs that threatened to wrack her body as often as the waves lapped the shore. Every waking moment was a constant reminder that she had lost so much, almost everything that mattered. Her slender frame trembled, and she drew her knees to her chest, hugging them tightly, searching for some small measure of comfort. But embracing herself brought no solace and only served to reinforce that he was not here to do it.
The tears slipped from her eyes, mixing on her cheeks with the salty spray that hung permanently in the air and was whisked off the waves by a stiff sea breeze. How could it possibly have only been a month? Yet, she was astonished that so much time had already passed. That fateful day seemed both years away and yesterday, all proper conception of time lost as hours and days blurred into one span measured only by grief. She wondered how long life—if it could still be considered that, she thought darkly—could possibly continue in this strange limbo without something breaking.
With a hesitant hand, she reached into a pocket of her light blue robe, and her fingers closed gently around the small, wooden object contained within. Another tear leaked free, but she wiped it away, clearing her vision as best she could so she could focus on the contents of her fist. She slowly, almost reluctantly uncurled her fingers, exposing Aang's bison whistle to the sun and the salt. It rested innocently in her palm, unaware that its owner had passed.
Her fingers tightened on it before she raised it hesitantly to her lips. It hovered there, not quite making contact, for a long moment while she struggled with her composure. But at last she managed to exhale shakily into the tiny instrument.
No sound emerged except for a mocking echo of her own breath, but it had never made any sound audible to human ears before, so she was not surprised. She found herself wondering just for the briefest instant if he somehow could have heard, if such pitches were clear in the Spirit World. And she chastised herself in the next instant for daring to think something so foolish.
"I don't think it works," a familiar voice told her, a voice she had grown used to hearing constantly over the past month.
Katara didn't even spare Zuko, the newly appointed Fire Lord, a glance as he lounged beside her. "It works," she insisted quietly. "You just can't hear it. It's a bison whistle. It's…it's all I have left of him," she added, her voice nearly as inaudible as the whistle's cry.
He laid a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently in an offering of his strength, but he did not seem to know how to reply to that. They sat in silence for some time before he spoke, although he addressed a different topic. "You come out here a lot."
"I'm a Waterbender, of course I like the ocean," she said, a bit of her former self creeping into her tone.
"But you never bend it," he pointed out.
He was telling the truth; she never did try to bend, and, in fact, she had not tried bending at all since she had helped heal the wounded from the final battle. She had all but abandoned the practice that was once her life's sole ambition. It simply seemed too insignificant now.
"I always thought the sea sounded lonely," he continued, unperturbed by her silence.
"We're good companions then," she remarked, turning the whistle over absentmindedly in her hands.
He sighed, and his hand slipped from her shoulder. "You're not alone, Katara. Sokka and Toph and Suki are still here. And so am I," he added, but she knew the inclusion wasn't an afterthought.
"No offense to any of you," she said quietly after some time, "but Aang wasn't everything to you guys. He was everything to me. Now…now he's gone. So I'm alone."
"I know you were close…" Zuko began, but she cut him off.
"We weren't just close. As much as he needed me for guidance and support and compassion, I needed him for hope and freedom and perspective. He was the very best friend I've ever had," she told him, her voice growing soft and wistful near the end.
There was a heavy pause. "Did you…did you love him?"
"If you mean would I have married him had he…had he…" she trailed off and swallowed with difficulty. "Yes, I believe I would have. Somewhere down the road—five or ten years or something. It hardly matters now, though. He's…he's…gone…and I can't do anything about it."
Zuko shifted his weight and wrapped one arm around her shoulders, drawing her close to his side; she didn't resist, used to the gestures of sympathy and support by now. "You'll get better, I promise you that. Someday you'll wake up and it won't hurt anymore."
She shook her head. "You don't get it, do you? I'll never be able to forget him, and I'm not good at letting go of grief. I still miss my mother, and it's…six years later." She choked on a sob and pressed her face into the crook of his neck, one hand clinging to his robe front. "Oh, spirits, I did love him, Zuko, I did…I do, I still do," she corrected. "I don't know what to do now…my future's course hinged on his survival, but…" she trailed off in sobs.
Zuko tightened his grip on her, one hand soothingly stroking her hair. "I understand that you love him, Katara, but that doesn't mean you have to subject yourself to a lifetime of loneliness. He wouldn't have wanted to see you so miserable, never that. He would have wanted you to find happiness with someone else, to live your life."
She pulled away from him, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. "What are you proposing, Zuko?"
His amber eyes—sincere, earnest—met her ice blue ones. "Stay here, stay with me," he said, the words somewhat of a plea. "We've been good friends for some time now, and I care about you a great deal. I know I'm not Aang, and I could never replace him, but I want to make you happy. I want to see you smile again. You could live here with me and my mother and my uncle…we could, well, we could become a family."
And her eyes widened in surprise. "Are you actually proposing, Zuko?" she asked incredulously.
He flushed faintly but did not break eye contact. "Yes, I am. Marry me, Katara."
She stared at him for a second more and then stood abruptly; turning from him, she walked a few paces along the tideline before she could face him again. "I can't marry you," she said, her voice tight. "I'm sorry."
He rose to his feet as well, though his expression fell. "What's wrong with me? Give me a chance!"
"I can't!" she cried, her voice louder than she had intended. "And there's nothing wrong with you, but there's everything wrong with me. You wouldn't want to marry me, believe me. It'd be completely unfair to you because I could never let you have my heart. Aang took that with him when he left, and I have nothing left to give. He was my hope, don't you get it? More than my hope for peace; he was literally my hope. I have nothing left to give," she repeated, her hand clenching on his whistle.
"I know that," he replied, his voice soft but determined. "I know how broken you are, Katara. I know that you may very well remain broken forever. But I don't care. I want to take care of you and I want to hold you when it hurts. Can't you let me do that for you?"
She shook her head. "You'd regret it, Zuko. And you'd start to resent Aang sooner or later, and neither of us needs any more bad feelings."
"So what're you going to do then?" he demanded, clearly hurt.
She let her gaze wander from his and rest upon the southern horizon. "I'm going home. Back to the clean and simple ice and snow. Back to the life I used to live because the future I planned on disappeared. And maybe I'll be able to forget that this ever happened. Maybe I'll be able to pretend it was all a dream."
"You can't seriously believe that," he said, looking somewhat astonished.
"No, I don't," she agreed, her eyes meeting his again, and she found herself wishing that instead of their bright and bold amber his eyes were a cool and clear gray. Gray as the clouds, as the sky, as the wind.
"Will you come back and visit? Maybe not soon, but someday?"
She shrugged, though the gesture was hardly nonchalant. "That I can't answer. But maybe someday. You are a very good friend, after all." He looked relieved at that, and she studied the whistle in her palm before she blew it again, her eyelids sliding briefly closed.
When she opened them, she saw that Zuko had walked a few paces away from the ocean, back towards the rocks and beyond them, the palace. He stopped, though, and looked back at her, a small, sad smile twisting his lips. "I bet he heard that."
Katara glanced at him, feeling a rush of gratitude. "What makes you say that?"
He chuckled, as if the answer were obvious. "Because you're the one playing it. Why wouldn't he be listening?"
She felt her own smile curling the corners of her mouth, and for a moment, she could imagine that she heard his carefree laughter carried in on the breeze. "Thank you, Zuko. Really. I wish for your sake that things could have turned out differently."
He brushed aside her words with a small wave of his hand. "No, Katara, I wish for your sake that things could have turned out differently. You don't deserve this much loss or sorrow. No one possibly could, least of all you." He fell silent, as if he had run out of the standard sympathetic phrases, and simply trudged back to the palace.
Katara watched until he disappeared amongst the rocks and then her eyes went to the skies and tracked Appa's flight. The fluffy behemoth landed with surprising grace on the black beach, and she scrambled onto his head. And with a flick of the reins, the Fire Nation vanished beneath the horizon.
Her boots connected with the arctic ground with the familiar sharp crunch of cold-hardened snow. She knelt down and pressed one gloved hand to the surface, feeling the chill seeping through the thick material.
She would never have believed she could have missed ice so badly.
Straightening, she walked back into her old village and dealt with the customary welcomes—Hakoda, Gran-Gran, Master Pakku—but she did not stay with them long. She did not want their compassionate embraces or expressions of understanding. She wanted the ice, the clean and simple ice, just as she had told Zuko. She wanted the solitude because the company she could have would never be enough.
Accompanied only by her shadow, she ventured aimlessly across the snow, not sure of her ultimate destination and not caring that she did not know. She felt too much to think, and all she could manage was to trust in her feet. They would carry her where they would, and she would be content with that. They might bring her somewhere she had never gone before, a new glacier or iceberg, or they might bring her to a place she had been a thousand times. Or perhaps to a place she had been only several times, all of them enclosed in a realm conveniently called past. A past before adventure, before flying.
The avian calls of the penguins did not startle her as her feet guided her into their midst. She glanced around like one waking from a dream and reached with equal detachment for the closest bird. It flapped its four stubby wings and twitched its walrus whiskers, but it made no move to flee from her grasp. It seemed to understand that she needed to do this, to relive this, to pretend it was happening for only the first time.
Her hands securely grasping the shoulders of the penguin, Katara hurtled down the steep, snowy slopes, her heart leaping and her breath catching each time the bird left the ground and became airborne. The exhilaration had not left the activity as she had imagined it would; after all, what was taking a jump on a penguin compared with actually flying on a bison? But this was familiar, somehow even more familiar than riding on Appa. This was how it had all began, but that thought abandoned her mind and all she felt was the sheer joy of the ride.
The same words leapt unbidden from her lips in the same elated tone. "I haven't done this since I was a kid!" she laughed aloud, a grin spreading from ear to ear.
And his words floated back to her, almost swept away by the powerful winds that whipped across her ears and threatened to tear her eyes.
You still are a kid.
The penguin skidded to a halt as the terrain leveled, and it slid out from beneath her and waddled away, leaving her sitting on the snow. Her whole body shook with laughter, laughter she hadn't known she had possessed, and she simply laughed to the empty landscape, filled with the thrill of sledding. But then the laughter turned to quaking sobs without her acquiescence, and she slumped prostrate on the ice, crying bitterly into the crook of one arm.
She was still a kid. She was only fifteen, for Twi's sake! Zuko was right—she had suffered far too much for someone as young as she. Her best friend and future love of her life, all in one fell swoop. Add to that her mother and all the trials of war, and she didn't know how she managed to wake up each morning, let alone get up. She slammed her other fist into the snow, sending up a puff of crystals but not bending them. She didn't have the heart anymore.
The wind swept over her, tugging dark strands loose from her braid and cooling the hot tears on her cheeks. She buried her face further in her sleeve to avoid it, but it persisted, and she opened her bloodshot eyes to glare in its direction when a thought occurred to her. The way it acted was as if it were being bent—Airbent.
She pushed herself to her knees, staring wildly in all directions before she managed to control herself. What was she thinking? Had she lost her grip on reality? It was just the wind, not Airbending. Aang had been the last of their kind, and he had died in her arms a month ago. A lifetime ago. Yesterday.
She shook her head to clear it, and she finally realized exactly where the penguin had borne her. She was on the edge of an ice sheet: beyond were only the wind and the waves, the sea and the sky.
Water and Air.
Nothing but water and air as far as the eye could see.
Her mouth curled into the faintest of smiles, and she brushed the tearstains from her cheeks, closing her eyes as the wind caressed her again. The same biting cold, and yet gentle. It swept off waves which no longer sounded quite so lonely.
She gazed at her surroundings. The bluish tinge to the white ice. The immaculate azure of the sky. The gray shadows on the skidding, porcelain clouds. Ocean-blue, sky-blue, snow-white, cloud-white.
What had she said to him, that last promise she had made?
I'll always be with you.
She would return to her village soon. She would settle back in. She would begin Waterbending in a few days because it was part of who she was, no matter what memories it invoked or what atrocities it had committed. She would live her life.
Katara rose slowly to her feet, that smile still flitting about her lips. Here in the South Pole the ocean and sky were constant companions. Water and Air. Their elements, bound together until the end of the age.
The wind seemed to follow her home, playing softly with her hair.
Avatar Roku frowned; he had not seen such a happy, content expression on the face of the young Airbender since he had arrived. Curious, he waded through the waters of the Spirit World until he was but a few paces from the boy.
"Why the smile, Avatar Aang? You seem greatly pleased about something."
Aang shook his head, his eyes as gray as the shadows on the snow-clouds. "Not pleased, exactly. But I am happy. Quietly happy."
"Why is that?" Roku asked, glancing about the vicinity for its cause.
He leaned back against a tree, his joy contained in a soft smile. "I'm making good on her promise."
Aang nodded and gazed down into the water pooling around the trunk as if he could see beyond its depths to another place. "I'll always be with her."
Katara paused, the tent flap held in one hand, and took one last look at the snow and the sky, felt the wind on her cheeks one more time before she stepped inside, his bison whistle clutched in one hand.
And she was never alone.